Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Food for the Gods

Anyone contemplating the pre-Columbian civilizations south of the U.S. border must be struck by the importance of human sacrifice. Who can forget the tens of thousands regularly killed by the Aztecs, the mummified Inca children found on mountaintops, the Mayan altars with a concavity atop for the victim’s heart and carved grooves for comely symmetric flow of blood? Such practices, virtually universal during the Bronze Age, but originating far back in Paleolithic times and continuing into the present, puzzle if they do not shock us moderns. Was Adorno correct in classing a practice so widespread with the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis as “touchstones of barbarity”?

The killing of servants to accompany a royal pooh-bah, attested in many cultures, may be viewed as simply a reinforcement of hierarchy and control and the deaths of war captives as a gloating display ritual. When I entered the courtyard of the Oba of Benin City, I saw an image, made of the same rusty-red laterite clay as the palace, depicting the ruler with a large blade in one hand and half a human body in the other, an image clearly designed to intimidate visitors. I recalled the gruesome tales of the sacrifice of over a hundred told by a member of the punitive expedition of 1897. [1] The offering of people of status, however, must arise from other causes.

The Hebrew scripture contains ample evidence for human sacrifice in the ancient Near East. The binding of Isaac will come first to mind. Abraham is specifically ordered to make his son “a burnt offering upon one of the mountains.” (Genesis 22:2) Whatever else it may signify, this narrative surely was written to justify the end of a ritual that had existed earlier. Jephthah’s burnt sacrifice of his daughter (who willingly cooperates) in return for victory in battle reminds the reader of another general, Agamemnon, and his equally cooperative daughter Iphigenia. (Judges 11:29-40) [2]

Clearly, human beings caught up in a world they cannot control have always striven to master the situation through currying favor with greedy deities. Since we are self-interested, we assume god must be as well. Do ut des. The old ritual magic compelled divine gifts, but the gifts do not come for free. The more valuable an offering one can give, the greater the likelihood one’s prayers will be answered. From this perspective, human sacrifice is simply a stronger magic than the offering of animals or flowers. [3] The use of incense or candles preserves the archaic notion that some “sweet savor” ascends to the Almighty who inhales it with pleasure. The body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist ratchets the value up further from the human victim to a divine one. The central duty of both Brahmins and Kohanim is the proper administration of sacrificial offerings in order to obtain benefits for the donor.

This practical ego-centered motive, however, by no means exhausts the meaning of human sacrifice. Most importantly, the shedding of blood dramatically enacts the fact that life lives only upon life. There is no inorganic food. Survival depends on consuming living things (animal or plant makes no difference), making them a sacrifice to ourselves. Thus, the offering of life to god reflects human recognition of our necessary ensnarement in the web of life and death. We eat, and, if we are not cremated, our bodies are eaten. Ahimsa is an unrealizable ideal. Even a fruitarian sannyasin can only approach perfect non-violence as he destroys the potential to grow and reproduce of the products he consumes. Human sacrifice dramatizes this fact in the most memorable way.

Surely the witness to human sacrifice would experience pity and fear even more profoundly than the audience at a Greek tragedy. To witness the spectacle of death straight-on with open eyes portrays our human condition more profoundly than any philosophical text. How else can one explain the popularity of gladiatorial contests, executions, and bloody Mexican tabloids, not to mention the otherwise gratuitous violence in popular American films? Watching others die, we rehearse our own death, at once pleased not to be for the moment at least on center stage, yet knowing that our time will come, that each will play the central part, at once so titanic a change and so utterly ordinary.

As mythology, of course, the dying and reborn god is characteristic of planting societies, and the individual who is to die not infrequently welcomes this fate. Sacrifice means to consecrate or make holy, to the believer a desirable end. Martin Luther King’s apothegm “undeserved suffering is redemptive” includes of course the implication that death that serves the deity, whether through magic or morality, carries the highest “redemptive” value. The selflessness that enables such sacrifice is the opposite of the ego-driven motive in political and magical uses of sacrifice.

The practice of human sacrifice implies the ultimate identity of the mundane and the divine as one can pass into and fructify the other. Even more deeply, it suggests what the Uddalaka Aruni tells his son in the Upanishad [4] “That is you.” Far from the idea of the divine as “utterly other,” this identity implies the same sort of radical monism one finds in Parmenides, Stoicism, Spinoza and the mystics of many traditions. Modern physicists, while seeking to account for experimental results, have provided excellent images for this sort of view.

These sorts of sacrifice -- political, magical, psychological, ritual, philosophic, moral, and mystical – are not mutually exclusive. Like the meanings in every work of art, every cultural construct, they exist together in a dynamic and complex balance. The great essayist Montaigne relays a song sung by a prisoner of war during the time before he is killed and eaten by his captors. He invites his tormentors. “Let them boldly come altogether, and flock in multitudes, to feed upon him; for with him they shall feed upon their fathers, and grandfathers, that heretofore have served his body. These muscles, (saith he) this flesh, and these veines, are your owne; fond men as you are, know you not that the substance of your forefathers limbs is yet tied unto ours? Taste them well, for in them shall you finde the relish of your owne flesh.” [5] One hears, through the languages and the centuries, the defiant and stoical brave man taunting his murderers. One infers the victors’ aspiration to magically assume such courage from the vanquished. And for me at any rate, there is at least a hint of those more sublime intuitions: that each takes a turn in the procession of the flesh, and that in the end there is no distinction, they are he and he is they and in eating him they eat themselves.

I readily concede, of course, that this reflection would have had little meaning to the captive in question. While every cultural practice contains symbolic insights and, through its functional value to humans, is “true” from a certain perspective, human sacrifice and a number of somewhat less horrifying institutions (such as war, slavery, and oppression of women) should be banned by our species, regardless of past tradition. All the same, as a visitor to the once bloody altars of Mesoamerica, I recalled Montaigne’s conclusion that what he had heard of the New World “canniballes” sounded no more barbarous than what he knew without doubt to be occurring in Christian Europe, and, we may add, what we read in our daily newspapers. “There is nothing in that [American] nation, that is either barbarous or savage, unlesse men call that barbarisme which is not common to them. And indeed, we have no other ayme of truth and reason, than the example and Idea of the opinions and customes of the countrie we live in. There is ever perfect religion, perfect policie, perfect and compleat use of all things.”




1. See Alan Maxwell Boisgragon’s The Benin Massacre.

2. Biblical examples of other sorts of human sacrifice occur as well. For instance, “Thou shalt not delay to offer the first of thy ripe fruits, and of thy liquors: the firstborn of thy sons shalt thou give unto me.” (Exodus 22:29); Jeremiah 32:35 describes Israelites offering their own children to Molech (as the King James has it) though the text condemns this sacrifice; in I Kings 16:34 Hiel rebuilds Jericho through the loss of his children; II Kings 23:20 tells of the burning of false priests on Jehovah’s altar; Deuteronomy 13:13-19 tells of the burning of an entire defeated town “for the Lord thy God.”

3. In Genesis 4:4-5 God accepts Abel’s animal sacrifice, while rejecting Cain’s vegetable one. The early Israelites were, of course, primarily pastoral people while the older civilizations around them depended on agriculture.

4. In the Chandogya Upanishad, 6th Prapathaka, 8th Khanda, verse 7.

5. “On Canniballes,” quoted from Florio’s admirable 1603 translation.

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